By GREG AUMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 19, 2001
My dad taught me a lesson about questions and answers when I was a kid, passing along a puzzler a math teacher once asked him: "How many telephone poles would it take to reach the moon?"
After a few moments of careful estimates and deep calculations, I offered some astronomical guess, which was shot down by my father's smiling answer: "One, if it's tall enough."
I now find myself dealing with the same numbers game in news releases e-mailed from the top sports sites, each taking Internet traffic figures and boasting themselves as industry leaders.
With online traffic measurement still in its infancy, numbers aren't easily understood, allowing companies to spin reports to their benefit. What's more, different measurement companies use different methods, each claiming to have an accurate pulse on where the country is going online.
This week, for instance, ESPN.com used numbers from Jupiter Media Metrix, a respected online measurement company, to boast a record 9.7-million users in September. The release reported rival Sportsline.com's traffic at 5.8-million and CNNSI.com at 4-million, calling ESPN the "leading sports site."
That's impressive, but three days later, Sportsline was claiming victory, citing September numbers from Nielsen//Net Ratings, owned by the same company that measures TV audiences. Those figures allowed Sportsline to call itself the "number one sports property on the Internet," with 10.3-million fans, ahead of CNN/SI (7.7-million) and ESPN (7.1-million). Property numbers include all sites run by a company, however, which gives Sportsline a boost from NFL.com, which it has produced since May. "There are a lot of variables that come into play, and we try to be as objective as possible," said Tamara Gaffney, a senior product manager at Nielsen.
"The numbers we get are completely unfiltered, and we try to be as objective as we can in telling people what they represent. ... If you want to say it's playing God with the data, yeah, it's what we do. It's very complex."
The changing nature of the Internet makes it difficult to keep track of what sites are really after. Traffic is good, but tons of sites with heavy traffic have folded.
"Stickiness," which measures how long visitors stay at a site, also is coveted but can be misleading. Nielsen's numbers for last week show Sportsline's time-per-visit average at 30 minutes, while ESPN is around six minutes, but that disparity might have as much to do with Sportsline's mammoth fantasy football section, where fans spend extended time picking weekly lineups and poring over statistics.
Next month, Nielsen will unveil a new statistic to measure sites: "loyalty and retention." In essence, it measures what percentage of people who visited a site in one month came back the next.
AOL.com, for instance, had a carryover of 73.7 percent from August to September, while Travelocity.com had just 26.5 percent. People are more likely to check their mail than they are to buy cheap airline tickets, however, so you have to be careful not to count apples against oranges.
The terms will come into better focus as the industry settles down from the ridiculous growth it has enjoyed. Until then, the jargon might seem fuzzy and numbers can be spun to the moon and back without leaving the realm of accuracy.
Just how many telephone poles is that, anyway?
TID-BYTES: After six months in limbo, South Florida relaunched its official site at gousfbulls.com, complete with a letter from athletic director Lee Roy Selmon. The site has a weekly schedule of events and links for tickets, directions, etc. but is still a work in progress. To wit: the men's basketball page's most recent story is from May. ... Online balloting for the Pro Bowl began this week on nfl.com. Too bad the system has an "express" ballot, which lets fans opt out before making offensive line and defensive selections.
-- If you have a question or comment about the Internet or a site to suggest, e-mail staff writer Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org.